I admitted something to myself recently, and have felt liberated ever since. Freer, more in tune with my own wants and desires: I admitted to myself that I LIKE TIME TRAVEL NARRATIVES.
The clues had always been there, I suppose. I loved Lost and I continued loving Lost even when it got confused by its own time-travel mythology. Other clues: the only Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) book I read was one about time travel (when I was an adolescent, obvs) and since then I’ve always found carved stone coffins of married couples incredibly romantic. I enjoyed Back To The Future 2 more than either of the other two Back To The Future films. That’s probably about it. When I became an adult (technically), I eschewed time travel pieces, but then in my late twenties I started listening to Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Podcast, where one of his running themes is analysis of varying modes/styles of time travel. Can time travel be cohesive? Is time travel ever cohesive? If something changes in the past due to the actions of a time traveller, how does it impact the present? In fact, must something that happened in the past be inherently true? Can we alter the past? But if we alter the past and change it so that the people necessary to create the method of time travel were never born, how could we then travel back in the first place?
When I was young, before I entered into denial of my enjoyment of time travel, I used to think of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as one of the best uses of time travel: all of the weird, ambiguous things that happen to Harry Potter during the events he later time travels back to are explained by his presence there: he interacts with himself because he already has. There is no paradox, the past is as the past is, innit.
I started thinking about time travel again when I nostalgically read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child when it came out a couple of Summers ago. That playscript pissed me off, because it changed the use of time travel within that fictional world. To be annoyed by this, though, is petulant, but the point of pieces that play with time travel is that, because time travel isn’t real, the use of time travel has to have an internal cohesion. Being in a different “time” isn’t in itself particularly interesting in and of itself: this is why I stopped watching Doctor Who, for example: rarely does it play with time travel, it just uses time travel as a justification for a new setting, the adventures of which then proceed (most of the time) in a linear fashion.1
That Tom Cruise film where he resumes a time loop every single time he dies, I enjoyed that, as too I enjoyed the time loop episode of the recent Netflix Star Trek series. I keep meaning to watch Looper, though have never seen it, and over the last few days I’ve been reading a time travel pulp(?) classic, Time and Again by Jack Finney.
The novel is from 1970 and introduces us to a gently racist, gently chauvinistic man working at an advertising agency in New York who gets recruited to join a top secret US government operation to travel back in time. Their method involves – v hippie vibe – meditation, with it becoming possible, and uncomplex, to slip from the 1970 present day to 1882, as long as one believes hard enough. They train the time travellers by keeping them in reproductions of the places they want to travel to, they teach them self-hypnosis, dress them in historical clothes and give them the relevant dialects of their target times and enough general knowledge to understand the place they want to move to.
What’s confusing about this is that with the time travel abilities that are described, it would be possible to move from anywhere to anywhere, as long as the traveller believed enough, however when Simon (or “Si”, as everyone calls him (after asking if it’s OK)) travels back to the New York of February 1882 from the New York of February 1970 and back and forth, time passes parallel to each other. Why? The people who train him repeatedly state that their method works because all that has existed and all that will ever exist exists now, and by opening our consciousness to it, man, we can step across easily. Time and Again forgets its own plot, and Simon’s actions appear to have no repercussions as he flits between times, investigating a minor mystery related to his girlfriend in 1970’s adopted father’s dad, investigating it with his new girlfriend in 1882, who he eventually decides is better.
The end of the novel involves Si weighing up the pros and cons of each of the New Yorks he has lived in. Though, yes, healthcare is better in 1970, there is more pollution, nuclear bombs and a girlfriend who is more age-appropriate. So he heads back to 1882 to whisk away his naive 21 year old and help propagate the world with a few more infant deaths and probably some boys who’ll die in the trenches. He also, as a final act, goes and interrupts the apocryphal meeting of the parents of the man who invented the method of time travel, and happily strolls into the 19th-century night unperturbed by the fact that he has just made his own travel to 1882 impossible.
The novel is trashy, pulpy fun, but it doesn’t really have quite as tight a grip on its own internal logic as a book of this length (it’s not short!) needs to be to hold attention.
It’s also dated, and has some very ropey dialogue at times. There’s a description of a woman that reads: “She was a big, good-looking, good-natured woman in her late thirties, with a lot of gray in her hair”, and at one point a man interrupts a lunch meeting to say, “Let’s go up on the roof. I’ll take my pie along.”
It’s silly, it’s uncomplex, and unfortunately the Scooby-Do style villain unmasking becomes too clearly signposted way too far before the “big reveal”, but as a relaxing, unchallenging piece of time travel fiction it’s a lot of fun. A good holiday read.
But that’s enough of holidays. Time to get back on something more serious, I think.
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